A thought amused me at the student orientation at the beginning of the semester. After taking the IELTS, TOEFL, and GMAT tests to come here, I still became self-conscious in an English-speaking environment, one where I was expected to introduce myself and make connections all. The. Time. What if I get laughed at for my accent? Am I speaking too slowly? Did I just make seven grammar mistakes? When I talk with native speakers, there are countless moments when my gut just wants to say, “My English is not good enough to talk about this. You can’t imagine how smart I am in my own language.”
The thing is, I learned English as a subject my whole life, but it’s so different when I have to live with it. If you feel the same way, I’ve got several tips to help you navigate the gap in speaking English in real grad life.
Take Advantage of Office Hours
Office hours with professors do not exist where I came from, but now it’s one of my favorite experiences at Columbia. The office hours will usually be stated in the syllabus; the professor lets you know when and where they will be available to talk. Some office hours require an appointment, but most of the time, you can just walk in. It will be a comfortable and secure space where you can talk with the professor, not necessarily in front of the whole class.
What to talk about during office hours? It’s fantastic if you come prepared with a list of issues you want to discuss with the professor, such as questions about a group project, or some terminology you’d like clarified, something you missed from the class, or real-world cases relevant to the course. But it’s also absolutely fine if you don’t have any academic subjects and just make some small talk with the professor, asking them about their life, their career paths, their holiday plans, or their dogs. You will easily find something in common or inspiring.
Most importantly, share something about yourself, what’s in your head and what’s happening in your life. Make connections and impressions so that help and fortune can flow to you. The professors I’ve met at Columbia are super supportive and care about your well-being and success. When I talked with a professor during office hours about my project outside the course and some obstacles I was facing, he immediately pulled out books, materials, and websites that were helping me out.
In terms of English speaking, there’s nothing more helpful than actually interacting with an experienced professional in your field. In real conversations, professors will listen to you, grasp your point, and sometimes rephrase it for clarity. You’ll learn so much from their expression and tone and how they structure their sentences. Going to office hours helps improve my speaking so much more than listening to TED talks at home again and again.
Say Yes to Campus Events
…and stop adding native speakers on Tinder just to “practice English.” Yes, that happens. On some occasions, second-language learners text or even date native speakers only to practice using English in real-life social interactions. I do not judge that. But there are absolutely easier and safer options: download EngageColumbia and say yes to campus events.
Campus events are secure places where you can meet new people from your peers and use English in a social environment. What I appreciate about those campus events is that there is usually a theme or something suggested, such as caramel apple decoration or costume karaoke, which relieves me from talking to people all the time while still suggesting me to a lot of conversation starters. At those events, it surprised me how friendly and patient the students here are and how much they love to share their stories and listen to mine.
If it still looks intimidating to join American-style parties, it’s easy to start with international student events. You don’t have to worry about your accent or grammar (though you shouldn’t worry about them anywhere you go) when you’re surrounded by people like you with a shared experience. From my international student event experience, it felt so relieving when we talked about what we all found odd about this country: why are the apartments unfurnished? Does it happen in any other country? Why do we have to pay both service fees and tips at restaurants? What’s so special about pumpkin spice? What’s all the fuss about Harry Styles? It doesn’t hurt to complain together, and it may help develop a friendship.
The career fairs are even better, especially when you get to talk with people from the industry or even your desired company. I was amazed when I swung by a virtual career fair of communications and got to talk with the hiring manager and the art director of Ogilvy, and I connected with them on LinkedIn. It was such a fantastic opportunity to practice a real-world English job interview without the chance of failing it and receive feedback from professionals.
Be Kind to Yourself
Don’t be afraid to ask questions. You have every right to ask, “What is that? How do you spell it? Would you pronounce this for me? Say that again? What does that mean?” People actually love to explain and exchange tips, and they gain a sense of fulfillment from this.
Where I grew up, English education could be connected with shameful memories. Some English teachers correct students when they make pronunciation mistakes in front of the whole class or punish students that did not memorize the vocabulary with extra writing or quizzes. Although this kind of teaching works for the exam system in my country, it makes us judgmental and harsh to ourselves when it comes to English. That is also an important factor in why students become afraid to speak English, especially in public, because there have always been some consequences when we make mistakes.
It is efficient for me to overcome this fear when I tell myself I am a foreigner here. I don’t come from here, obviously. So it is totally OK if I don’t speak as fast as my classmates, or if I don’t know what that thing’s called in English. There will not be punishments for that. There will not be fewer points on my scores. There is still a long way to go, but I am learning to treat myself with kindness to have more courage and confidence to fight language barriers.